Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals and Departures

The Dutch novelist, poet and journalist, Cees Nooteboom, wrote a wonderful book called Roads to Santiago. In it, the author opens his account of what is to be a luxurious, contemplative journey through the back ways and byways of Spain with a few thoughts on the nature of travel down through the ages. Specifically, he compares the mentality of travelers in the Middle Ages (the pilgrims who walked for years to get to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela) to our modern mentality of wanting to be there yesterday.

To make his point, Nooteboom describes a marble column at the entrance to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is here where pilgrims, upon arriving at their destination, still now place their hands upon the stone to celebrate the achievement of their goal. After hundreds of years of this collective gesture of thanksgiving, deep impressions have been left upon this column by the fingers of countless travelers, the physical manifestation of their having completed at least half of their journey successfully (for of course the pilgrims had to get home again). Nooteboom, who upon his own arrival (by car, not on foot), also places his hand in the fingerprints of centuries, claims to have felt his soul enlarged by “the emotions of those who have arrived and departed before him.” He also feels intense sadness for the hardships endured by these travelers of yesteryear. He doesn’t think we experience such sadness today for our journeys, he says, “no longer take years to complete, we know exactly where it is we are going and our chances of coming back are so much greater.”

Nooteboom published Roads to Santiago in 1992 and his comment is no doubt still true enough today, but it hasn’t felt that way recently. Getting there no longer seems the given it once was. The doomsayers who predict planes falling from the skies and boats sinking below the waves, the ones we all used to smile at and privately think crazy, are sounding more like realists these days. For the fantastic seems to have come true with a vengeance.

To be sure, planes have disappeared before. The annals of flight are a long, eerie litany of planes that started out and didn’t come back. Amelia Earhart and Antoine de Saint-Exupery are only the most famous of the vanished. But those were small planes flying with none of the complicated and redundant tracking systems that large, modern airplanes have nowadays. In those days, the 1930’s and 40’s, satellites didn’t circle the earth and radar was in its infancy. We know Amelia Earhart ran out of gas and Saint-Exupery was almost certainly shot down. But we do not know what happened to a Malaysian airliner filled with two hundred and sixty three people flying in a plane with multiple systems that should have allowed it to be found.

You hope they didn’t know what was happening. You realize that at some point they must have. When did they know it? When they soared higher than they should have and then dropped too low? Or was it when they woke up with the sun rising on the wrong side of the plane and no land in sight?

Certainly, as the South Korean ferry started to tip last week, everyone knew something was wrong. The captain and crew, who appear to have been “merely” incompetent, told people to stay where they were. We all watched the videos of high school students in life vests waiting patiently below decks as the ferry proceeded to capsize. They had been told to stay put and did as they were told. They, too, however, must at some point have known they had been betrayed.

The betrayal on the Korean ferry was clear and horrifying. The exact nature of the betrayal on flight MH370 may never be known. That this betrayal was human and not mechanical is almost certain. Someone wanted oblivion and forced hundreds to share it with him.

Of course, in large parts of the world reaching the end of your journey successfully has always been and remains a crap shoot. Talk to the African immigrants whose inadequate boats routinely sink as they try to cross the Mediterranean to Italy and Spain. Think of the illegal immigrants making their thirsty way through the deserts at the Mexican-United States’ border. Think of the refugees streaming out of Syria. We watch these things on our televisions, we shrug or despair as our natures dictate, but in our affluent complacency, we don’t expect it to happen to us. The one day it did, the day four planes full of people like us didn’t reach their destinations, haunts us still at the deepest levels of our souls.

Maybe we should start looking upon our arrivals, great and small, as the miraculous events that they are. Maybe we should stop taking them for granted.

When I lived in Germany, my German boyfriend’s mother, a woman full of the prejudice and wisdom of her native Saxony, used to make us sit down for a few minutes before we left on any long journey. Whether we were returning to our university in England, or driving east to cross the old border that divided West from East Germany, we all had to sit down on a large trunk in the hall for a few minutes before we left. It brought good luck, she would tell us. It meant we would get to where we were going without mishap. We used to tease her. We told her it was superstitious rubbish, but she didn’t care. She knew better. No one got out of there without a few minutes on the trunk.

I now understand that her belief in the solemnity of setting out was the ancient counterpoint to the joy the Santiago pilgrims felt when they arrived. I now wish I hadn’t teased her, for she knew deep down what it has taken me years to appreciate: a completed journey is a miracle, its undertaking the most awesome act of faith.

The hands upon the column, the trunk in the hall. Bookends to the story of a traveler, an admission that anything can happen, and often does, along the way.